“I was a virgin writer-director; the country was, too–no film had ever been made there,” British actor Richard E. Grant said in a recent Dallas interview of his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie “Wah-Wah,” which he made in the southeast African nation of Swaziland, where he grew up while his father served as a colonial official there. “So as a result there was enormous good will…because people wanted to see their country represented, and genuine curiosity.
“It’s entirely autobiographical,” Grant quickly admitted of the script, in which the boy modeled after him (played by Nicholas Hoult) has to deal with an adulterous mother (Miranda Richardson) who eventually runs off with another man, an alcoholic and sometimes violent father (Gabriel Byrne), and a free-spirited American step-mother (Emily Watson) who becomes in some respects his salvation–as well as a close-knit, insular British community. “Everything that happens, happened. But it’s been concentrated down from a ten-year time scale into three in terms of the story. The supporting characters are for the most part amalgams of the people that I knew. A lot of the extras said, ‘Oh, I know who this is based on–I knew that person.’ And one of the persons that it was most acutely based on, though being an amalgam, he was the person that said, ‘Oh, I know who this is based on.’ He did not recognize himself at all. So that makes it ‘semi-.’ It’s not a docu-drama, obviously. Whereas the family core [is autobiographical], certainly–from my point of view.”
Was writing about his own youthful experiences joyful or painful for Grant? “By turns painful as well and comical,” he replied, “because my father, despite being a violent alcoholic by night, was an incredibly funny, charming man by day, and I suppose he inculcated in me this need–I don’t know if you’re born with a sense of humor, but he certainly was a very funny man. That’s how I remember him above everything else. So I think that if you have a fairly healthy sense of humor, that enabled me to revisit the stuff that’s been very painful in my past, as well as the fact that it’s affected by the sheer malarkey of all these people putting on an amateur production of ‘Camelot’ to impress Princess Margaret [as the British community actually did when the princess visited for the celebration of Swaziland’s being granted independence in 1968, with Grant himself taking the role of Mordred in the Lerner-and-Loewe musical]. It’s a great source of comedy, and I so enjoyed writing all that. So it sort of balanced out.
“I kept a diary ever since I was ten years old, when I inadvertently witnessed my mother’s adultery in the front seat of the car, which is, as you know, the first scene in the movie,” Grant continued. “But the process of writing or having this inanimate object be the eye for your life, I’m so in the habit of doing that, that somehow it makes you able–or you’ve gotten into the habit of being able–to objectify experiences. Yes, of course they’re painful, but by the same token, it’s what happened.
“The equivalent for me was the Peter Bogdanovich film that I so loved, ‘The Last Picture Show,’” Grant said. “A small town, everybody knows everybody else’s business, sexual shenanigans go on, but there are rules, boundaries that you can’t cross. So people turn a blind eye to infidelity, but you didn’t actually get divorced. It’s almost like a greenhouse atmosphere [in which] people re-invent themselves or self-aggrandize themselves when they’re away from the mother-country.” The effect was accentuated in the late sixties, Grant emphasized, by the fact that the turnover of the territory to the locals was imminent: “It’s the premise of people thinking that history was overtaking them, and it’s a sort of comedy and drama in the film. That’s what I was very interested in focusing on.”
Grant was also intent on portraying the complexity of the characters. “My experience of life is that people are not one thing or the other,” he said. “We’re all capable of good and bad; showing people in a three-dimensional way makes them human, and you can identify with them much more easily. It would have been very easy to demonize the mother completely, or show the father to be a drunken maniac, and the stepmother with a heart of gold, and all the supporting characters as ridiculous snobs with no redeeming humanity whatsoever. And I think an audience would have sniffed out that inauthenticity quickly, and it wouldn’t have been able to sustain itself or to make people laugh or move people in the way that I know it now does with audiences. This is the real payoff, because people have responded so warmly and positively to it. That continues to surprise and floor me, really–I thought it would be so esoteric and particular to my idiosyncratic childhood in Africa that I wasn’t sure that it would transmit outside.”
“Wah-Wah” certainly seems to.